Craig, the best "sage on the stage" I know
Craig, the best “sage on the stage” I know

I get rather perplexed by people’s attempts to exalt one particular way of teaching.  Ofsted’s criteria seems to have created a culture in England where there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” and that pupils have to demonstrate progress every other minute of your lesson.  I don’t think that’s actually what Ofsted set out to do, old or new versions of things, but it has nevertheless been an impetus strongly felt by staff.  Of course a pupil can demonstrate that they understand something in a lesson, and the lesson can be designed in order to make that learning memorable, but ultimately we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that our outstanding lessons will mean that pupils won’t still forget what they’ve learned.

The term “active learning” can be applied to any method designed to engage pupils in the learning process during your lesson, making sure that pupils are involved and processing what is going on in your lesson. It stands in contrast to passive learning, where pupils are merely the recipients of information, through whatever method, and don’t really take it in there and then. And, for me, that is the only real distinction between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to make in terms of teaching style and learning outcomes.

Our learning and teaching policy mentions creating situations where you can move away from being the “sage on the stage” to being more of a “guide on the side” so that you can give more attention to pupils one-to-one, for instance. This does not mean that we should abandon leading from the front of the classroom in favour of taking a backseat. Collaborative learning and peer feedback is all well and good, when done well and at the appropriate time (and it can be so hard to get it right). But for active learning to be taking place there needs to be clear structure, meaningful goals and effective feedback, which isn’t always available from pupils not yet knowledgeable or mature enough to handle that kind of responsibility.

A former colleague of mine was an excellent sage on the stage. Deeply entrenched in the academic, his passion for philosophy exuded from every morsel of his lessons, where pupils were exposed to a level of knowledge and skill that was always just beyond them. And it was that gap which he exploited – and he was able to bring pupils on to levels I didn’t think were possible. He modelled what they could achieve in every fibre of his teaching style, and in doing so engaged his pupils and gave them something tangible to work towards. Pupils as young as 11 and 12 were using philosophical language I wouldn’t expect until they were 16 because of his very direct instruction.  And yet he might not have been as recognised by the Ofsted system as he ought to have been.

Here’s the point: pupils were actively learning in his lessons. The mistake we can make is to conflate explaining and learning. The delivery of content does not guarantee its arrival in pupils’ brains. You see, he viewed his role as having a conversation with his class. He would present them with a problem, and engage them in the process of solving it. He wasn’t just imparting information; he was involving them.

John Hattie and Robert Marzano have both extensively researched what works in education. They both conclude that when Active Learning strategies are deployed and become the norm, pupils can perform up to a grade-and-a-half better than those in comparative control groups. Hattie is clear that almost anything works, as long as the teacher gives direct instructions and seeks to understand the impact that their teaching has upon pupils’ understanding and progress.

So, the challenge this presents to us all is to reflect on what we currently do, and be pleased with instances of active learning in our pedagogy; and identify areas where we need to work on this some more and then have a conversation with our pupils about solving a problem.